The metaverse will be filled with ‘elves’ – TechCrunch

Some say the Metaverse is nothing more than marketing hype, while others insist it will transform society. I fall into the latter camp, but I’m not talking about avatar-filled cartoon worlds like many do.

Instead, I believe the true metaverse – the one that will change society – will be a layer of augmentation on the real world, and in 10 years it will be the foundation of our lives, impacting everything from shopping and socializing to business and education.

I also believe that a corporate-controlled metaverse is dangerous to society and requires aggressive regulation. Indeed, platform providers will be able to manipulate consumers in ways that make social media look weird. Most people are concerned about data collection and privacy, but they overlook what will be the most dangerous technology in the metaverse: artificial intelligence.

The most dangerous part of the metaverse: the agenda-driven artificial agents who look and act like other users, but are actually AI-controlled simulated characters.

In fact, if you ask people to name the core technologies of the Metaverse, they’ll usually focus on glasses and maybe mention graphics engines, 5G, or even blockchain. But those are just the cogs and bolts of our immersive future — the technology that will pull the strings of the metaverse, creating (and manipulating) our experience, is AI.

Artificial intelligence will be just as important to our virtual future as the attention-grabbing headsets. And the most dangerous part of the metaverse will be artificial agenda-driven agents who look and act like other users, but are actually AI-controlled simulated characters. They will engage us in “conversational manipulation”, targeting us on behalf of paid advertisers without us realizing they are not real.

This is especially dangerous when AI algorithms have access to data about our personal interests and beliefs, habits and temperament, while monitoring our emotional state by reading our facial expressions and voice inflections.

If you think targeted ads on social media are manipulative, it’s nothing compared to the chatbots that will engage us in the metaverse. They will present us more adeptly than any human salesman, and it won’t just be to sell us gimmicks – they will push political propaganda and targeted misinformation on behalf of the highest bidder.

And because these AI agents will look just like anyone else in the metaverse, our natural skepticism of publicity won’t protect us. For these reasons, we need to regulate AI-driven chatbots, especially when they have access to our facial and vocal affects, allowing our emotions to be used against us in real time.

If we don’t regulate this, ads in the form of AI-driven avatars will sense when you’re skeptical and change tack mid-sentence, quickly focusing on words and images that make an impact you personally. As I wrote in 2016, if an AI can learn to beat the best chess and go players in the world, learn to trick consumers into buying things (and believing things) that aren’t in our best interests is child’s play.

But of all the technology heading our way, it’s what I call “the elf” that will be the most powerful and subtle form of coercion in the metaverse. These “electronic life enablers” are the natural evolution of digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, but they won’t be disembodied voices in the metaverse. These will be personalized anthropomorphized characters for each consumer.

Platform vendors will market these AI agents as virtual life coaches and they will persist throughout your day as you navigate the metaverse. And because the metaverse will ultimately be a layer of augmentation over the real world, these digital elves will be with you everywhere, whether you’re shopping, working, or just hanging out.

And just like the marketing agents described above, these elves will have access to your facial expressions and voice inflections as well as a detailed history of your life data, pushing you towards actions and activities, products and services, even political opinions.

And no, they won’t be like today’s crude chatbots, but embodied characters that you’ll think of as trusted characters in your life – a mix between a familiar friend, a helpful counselor, and a caring therapist. And yet, your elf will get to know you in a way no friend ever could, as they’ll monitor every aspect of your life down to your blood pressure and respiratory rate (via your trusty smartwatch).

Yes, it sounds scary, which is why platform providers will make them cute and non-threatening, with innocent traits and mannerisms that are more like a magical character in your own “life adventure” than a human-sized assistant that follows you everywhere. That’s why I use the word ‘elf’ to describe them, because they can appear to you like a fairy hovering over your shoulder or maybe a gremlin or an alien – a small anthropomorphic character who can whisper to your ear or fly to draw attention to the elements of your augmented world that it wants you to focus on.

This is where it gets particularly dangerous – without regulation, these life-enhancers will be hijacked by paid advertisers, targeting you with more skill and precision than anything on social media today. And unlike today’s commercials, these intelligent agents will follow you, guide you through your day, and do it with a cute smile or a giggle.

To help convey what this will look like, both positive and negative, I’ve written a short story, Metaverse 2030, which describes how AI will drive our immersive lives by 2030 and beyond.

Ultimately, VR, AR and AI technologies have the potential to enrich and improve our lives. But when combined, these innovations become particularly dangerous, because they all have one powerful trait in common: they can trick us into believing that computer-generated content is genuine, even if it’s a fabrication motivated by Agenda. It is this powerful capacity for digital deception that should make us fear an AI-enabled metaverse, especially when controlled by powerful corporations that sell third-party access to its users for promotional purposes.

I raise these concerns in the hope that consumers and industry leaders will push for meaningful regulation before the issues become so entrenched in Metaverse technology that they are impossible to resolve.